An Insider’s View of Graduate Admissions

When people think of the person in charge of admissions at a school or university, they tend to think of their job as an easy, even lighthearted occupation that entails a lot of smiling faces, easy going interviews, and a low pressure workload. Viewed from the outside, this is an easy assumption to make, but as someone who has worked as an admissions director at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, a dean of admissions at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and as associate dean for enrollment and student services at Columbia University Teacher’s College, I can assure you there is a lot more at work in the background than just easy decisions and pleasant meet and greets.

Outsiders view my job as primarily travelling around the world, meeting with prospective students and making simple admissions decisions for my institution; That it’s mostly just me being the guy who gets to make people happy. Because of this, my family and friends would tell me often of how envious they were and how they wished their jobs could be as relaxed, rewarding, and cheerful as mine.

 While overseeing admissions can certainly be all of those things, the reality is there’s a lot more at work behind the scenes that students, parents, and other onlookers are often unaware of. As a dean, you are the face with which the institution greets the world. In my experience, the admissions department is primarily preoccupied with sales and marketing more than anything else. Their job is to pitch the institution to the students who have been chosen for admission, to convince them like any other product that yours is the best choice for them. Every year there is a predetermined number of students that the Admissions department needs to persuade to enroll, for they are the lifeblood of the institution.

Budgets, Facilities, and personnel are all set according to this number, making the margin of error exceedingly small. Too many students, and budgets and personnel could be stretched thin by unforeseen expenses - too few, and budgets as well as jobs are put into jeopardy.


And the enrollment target isn’t an overall number - within in it are multiple subdivisions which pose similar constraints on the admissions process, i.e. a certain number of men, women, domestic students, international students, minority students etc. This was one of the more difficult and lesser known challenges of my job - reaching these individual targets while meeting the overarching enrollment goal so that not only the size of the student body but also its composition was in accordance with the enrollment target. In my experience as dean of admissions, it was commonplace for the target to be set by senior administration without my involvement. They would point at the target, my job was simply to hit the mark.

These targets were rarely the same year to year. It would rise and fall depending on the goals of the institution at the time. One year the goal could to be raise the allotment for minority students from 30 to 40%, or to encourage more domestic student enrollment.

More often than not, by the time we at the admissions department are given our enrollment targets, the student recruitment season is already in full swing and time is limited.

One of the more common misconceptions I alluded to earlier was that people tend to think of the dean of admissions as the person who gets to make people happy - That I’m the person who gets to give the good news to prospective students that they have been accepted into the institution. While that is certainly a gratifying part of my job, that is but one side of the coin. The pendulum must swing the other way, and it fell upon me more often than not to inform perfectly qualified students that they, despite their absolutely stellar resume, wouldn’t be accepted into the institution of their choice. By mere circumstance I was forced to tell a lot of outstanding students no simply because they happened to apply at the wrong time. This was by far the hardest part of being dean.

And as dean, I wasn’t allowed any bad days. As dean, you are the face the institution wears when it shakes a hand, day in day out, all year round. When a parent or a prospective student calls in, they are there to speak to the institution, not the guy having a bad day. They have questions they want answered, and every interaction, however minute, can be the difference between that candidate sending in their application or moving on elsewhere.

Finally, like a coach for a major sports team or an actor in a huge film, a dean is only as good as their last performance. Once the entering class has enrolled, we dust our hands off and begin work on the next class, any success of the previous year, however difficult the targets or heroic the campaign was to meet them, becomes instantly irrelevant. The only thing that matters is the next year, the next targets, the next class. Rinse, wash, repeat.

Experts from the article Dr.Donald Martin